Breaking news: the economy is broken and everybody’s broke, and the brokers are heartbroken because no one’s breaking even, and your parents are breaking your balls because your spring break broke the bank. At times like these, who can even think of breaking bread?
… In case you didn’t get that, let me break it down.
All punsanity/stupundity aside, it’s clear that the financial crisis is taking its toll on the restaurant industry. Before the bubble burst, you couldn’t get a table at Per Se unless you were willing to donate your firstborn to the first course. But now the food’s getting cold at the hottest of hot spots, and those white tablecloths stay white all night long. These days we dine out minimally, and when we do, we do it cheaply.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dining on a dime — show me your $1 dumplings and I’ll show you mine — but by passing up a well-made meal, we may be robbing ourselves of one of the few things that might soothe our troubled souls. And haven’t we been robbed enough lately? As transient as they are, those petit fours might be just the petit relief we need from the definitely-not-petit problem of how to pay the rent. Even we lowly college students, who were penniless before the crisis and would have been living on Ramen for the next 10 years anyway, should be able to take pleasure in the occasional haute nibble.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we fritter away our savings on fritters. But the downturn shouldn’t force us to turn down everything; the key is not to stop spending completely on dinner, but rather to ensure you get the right bang for your buck. When you decide to blow your dough, you want to pick a place that you know will deliver — and I don’t mean on a bicycle in under 10 minutes.
Easier said than done, right? That’s true to a point. A wine list and an amuse-bouche are no longer guarantees of a delicious meal, and when you’re trying to spend wisely, it can be hard to tell what’s worth the squeeze and what’s just a lemon. But as it happens, there are still a few sneaky ways of determining which fine restaurants actually serve fine food. And what’s more, some of said sneaky ways will let you test for quality without even racking up a bill. If you’re a sly fox, you can actually size up a swanky eatery without even tasting the food. A few cheap tricks:
1. Before you order, scope out the menu’s font. (Normal people, skip ahead.) Presentation is half the battle at these places, and a classy restaurant will understand that curlicues do not automatically make you fancy. Curlicues automatically make you a loopy tool, so if you see any, think twice. Also run from Comic Sans, the Font of Morons, which is reserved exclusively for places like Chuck E. Cheese, Domino’s Pizza and various other skeezy combinations of a carb and some dude’s name. The biggest red alert is Papyrus, that creepy pseudo-ancient Dead Sea Scroll font that makes you feel like you’re on the set of “Mythbusters.” I’m sorry, but this is the 21st century, and we are not on the Nile, and I want pork chops. Your King Tut chicken scratch does not reassure me.
2. Next up: your server. If he tries to pour you water, kick him in the shins and book it. They have buspersons for that. And if he ever asks you, “So, are you folks from around here?” say, “Oh no, we’re just passing through.” And then pass through. Immediately. Good restaurants mean business, and no one who meant business ever used the word “folks.”
3. In the end, it all boils down to one crucial measure, the tell-all of restaurant standards: the omnipotent bread basket. Sexy bread will be studded with something or other (raisins/fennel seeds/mini marshmallows), will come in at least three varieties, and will not be remotely limp. If you see anything floppy, squishy or at all resembling Memory Foam, calmly stand up, cancel your order and blow that joint. Some terms and conditions might be negotiable — but when you decide to break bread in a broken economy, you better make damn sure that bread is actually breakable.